The archetype of warriorhood, if taken literally, can antithetical to the Buddhist path of peace. Taken as a metaphor for inner change, however, it can represent the inner struggle required in spiritual practice. Guest blogger and philosopher Justin Whitaker explores three types of warrior: outer, inner, and perfected.
I find it difficult to write about warriorhood from a Buddhist perspective. The term for me is heavily laden with negative connotations and often misunderstood by those around me. We may do well to distinguish at the beginning between three kinds of warrior: the outer, the inner, and the perfected. It is the outer warrior that we most often think of when hearing the term and see glorified in the movies and praised by politicians. This is not the warrior ideal of the Buddhist path.
And I, like many of you, have encountered people who, fleeing great pain in their hearts and past, have wrapped themselves in the cloak of a certain type of warrior, the outer warrior. That is to say that these warriors, haunted by demons of their own minds and hearts, wear a mask of strength or stoic detachment. Yet this mask, at its worst, perpetuates the cycle of suffering by painting the world as a very dark and unwelcoming place, externalizing the pain within. At its best it protects the wearer from the wounds still felt from an almost unknown place deep within.
So it is with that background that I say that we must be careful when we speak of warriorhood. Our vision of awakening cannot be accomplished in battling the world around us. In order to take up the path of the Buddha, of warrior-like discipline and striving, we must turn inward. Carl Jung stated it well: “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart…. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” This turning within is the inner warrior-ideal. Whether weak or strong, old or young, this is the work of the Buddhist warrior.
In order to take up the path of the Buddha, of warrior-like discipline and striving, we must turn inward.
The more we practice, the more we see that all of us carry pain from the past. The deeper your wounds are buried, the more difficult your work will be and yet all the more necessary it is to begin now. This is not to speak lightly of the arts of the outer warrior: developing one-pointed concentration, mastering wise teachings, building strength and vitality in the body, and so on. But if we have these abilities and yet still hold a core of anger and pain, then it is like putting a great army in the charge of a madman. One can be a one-pointed assassin or bully, or an immoral and unhappy academic of Buddhism or similar spiritual path. In fact one must be careful with the arts of the outer warrior if one’s heart is still dominated by the three poisons (greed, aversion, and ignorance). Possessing these skills may actually strengthen the ego and feed the poisons.
Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin who tried to kill the Buddha and seize control of the Sangha is one such afflicted outer warrior. He possessed great skills, great knowledge, and meditative prowess. But his heart was still filled with jealousy and desire for power. Had he let go of his outward ambitions and turned his brilliant mind inward to uncover the pain at his heart, he surely would have won enlightenment in that very lifetime, as countless others did in the presence of the Buddha.
This turning within, with whatever degree of mindfulness you have at the moment, is the work and skill of the inner warrior.
The warrior’s skills may actually strengthen the ego and feed the poisons
The third type of warrior is the perfected. This is the stage of one’s practice in which the grip of the past is finally loosened. Bernadette Devlin, a woman who was active in the long struggles of N. Ireland, once said, “Yesterday I dared to struggle. Today I dare to win.” Living in troubled times or with a turbulent heart, it can be difficult to recognize this juxtaposition, this transition from struggle to victory. This is the transition from the inner warrior to that of the perfected.
In the stories of the Buddha’s life is the character Mara, the personification of all doubts, cravings, and misunderstandings. Even after his awakening, Mara would visit the Buddha. That is to say that in his mind some doubt, desire, or misunderstanding still occasionally would arise. But the Buddha had attained the level of perfected warrior. He thus did not see Mara as having any external, independent reality outside himself. Nor did he shy away from Mara or get pulled into the drama or confrontation that Mara sought. Instead he simply said, “I see you, Mara. I know you.” And seeing Mara destroyed ‘him’ every time.
So it is that correctly seeing our own hurt without fleeing or being drawn into the story or drama likewise destroys it. This is no easy task, as many seasoned meditators know. It can take years to see through the layers of grief, abuse, and neglect that may be encountered in one’s life, to see through the stories and justifications and even indignation we have wrapped ourselves in for protection.
Our path to the perfected warrior within us may take many years of struggle: struggling to be present with our pain as it arises, struggling to simply stay with the practice when more pleasant activities beckon. And it may help us greatly along the inner journey to our heart to have practiced and grown in the arts of the outer warrior. But the path is, always, of a whole. And there is no time to begin, but this very moment.
Justin Whitaker holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University, England and is currently a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics at the University of London. He has practiced in several Buddhist traditions including the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, Montana and Bristol, England. He currently lives in Missoula, where he works for the Center for Ethics, leads the University sangha, and meditates regularly on Missoula’s mountains and rivers. His personal blog is americanbuddhist.blogspot.com.